Article - Summer 2021

Of Plagues and Prejudice

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Whether cholera or Covid-19, epidemic disease can reveal what is hidden—in ourselves and our societies

By Perri Klass | June 1, 2021
An undated engraving depicts the effects of cholera infection on a young Viennese woman. Death could result only hours after exposure. (Hamza Khan/Alamy)
An undated engraving depicts the effects of cholera infection on a young Viennese woman. Death could result only hours after exposure. (Hamza Khan/Alamy)

Pandemics make us think about the plagues of the past. As we live through the time of Covid-19, we seek lessons from other moments when microorganisms caused widespread death and devastation. In the 19th century, cholera put great cities into states of fear and flight and left whole families lying dead, even as physicians debated causation and transmission, and governments wrestled with travel regulations, immigration restrictions, and mandatory quarantines.

There is a cholera vaccine now, though its efficacy is not perfect or long lasting, and the disease can be treated, but epidemic cholera remains a problem in regions blighted by poverty, war, or natural disaster. Cholera continues to kill, especially where medical resources and access to clean drinking water are limited. In 2010, a severe outbreak started in Haiti that eventually killed nearly 10,000 people. But as a pediatrician treating children in the United States, I have never seen a case of cholera.

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